Archive for April 2021

Earth Week 2021

Posted by NYPIRG on April 26, 2021 at 8:12 am

April 22nd was Earth Day.  For over five decades, the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and to debate how best to improve the only habitat we have.

This year’s Earth Day took place under the shadow of a worldwide pandemic that continues to rage.  Last year was the first year that the world began its struggle with COVID-19, but that struggle obscured the efforts of the Trump Administration to roll back environmental protections.

The Biden Administration has taken a very different tack.  Like its approach to the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden Administration has relied on science to drive its policymaking when it comes to the existential threat posed by climate change.

There is no longer a credible debate over whether human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels to create energy, is warming the planet.  According to the world’s climate experts: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic [human-caused] emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.  Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

Relying on the science to drive its approach to combating global warming, last week the Biden Administration rolled out its plan – calling for the United States to cut by at least 50% its planet-warming emissions by the year 2030. 

That goal is in line with what the world’s experts have said is necessary to curb the worst impacts of global warming.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world would have to curb its carbon emissions by at least 49% by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts from global warming.

For the United States to achieve the President’s goal, the nation would have to drastically reduce its reliance on oil, gas, and coal as fuel.  Instead, among other measures, it would have to ensure that

  • By 2030, half the country’s electricity would need to come from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydropower, up from 20% today.
  • Electric power plants would have to cut their emissions sharply by 2030 and to net zero by 2035.  It will have to do so by relying on non-fossil fuel power.
  • Two-thirds of new cars would have to be battery-powered up from roughly 2% today.
  • All new buildings would be heated by electricity rather than natural gas.

The President’s emissions target requires action by the Congress.  The plan’s success hinges on the President’s proposal to spend trillions of dollars to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

Of course, the Biden Plan is not relying on the federal government to act alone.  States like New York, California, Massachusetts, and others have aggressive goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  Like New York City, cities across the country are enacting stricter building codes and installing electric vehicle charging stations.  Large companies like General Motors and Google have made specific promises to shift to electric vehicles and cleaner energy.

For those leaders, the science behind the looming climate catastrophe has resulted in actions for change.

But like the Trump Administration, many Republican lawmakers – protective of (and too often beholden to) the fossil fuel industry – are doing all they can to undermine the science and throw roadblocks in front of efforts to deal with climate change.

It is clear from historical records that for the better half of the late 20th Century, oil companies funded industry and university collaborations, broadly in line with the developing public scientific approach.  According to corporate documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, for example, a leading Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991 that greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels.  Nobody disputes this fact.”  The senior Exxon researcher went on to add that there was no doubt those levels would double by the middle of the 21st century.  He may well be right.

Nevertheless, starting in the 1980s, the industry championed climate change denial on multiple fronts and opposed regulations to curtail global warming.  The industry funded organizations critical of climate change treaties, undermining public opinion about the science that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.  Their successes in bamboozling the public have pushed the planet to the brink.

Actions such as those advanced by the Biden Administration are based on science and responsive to the incredible challenges facing the nation and the world.  For the future of our planet, let’s hope that next Earth Day is celebrating a dramatic positive change in the health of the earth.

Lawmakers Return to Session, Big Issues Await

Posted by NYPIRG on April 19, 2021 at 9:57 am

New York lawmakers return this week after a break following passage of the state budget in early April.  There are several big issues to tackle, all of which will be debated under the shadow cast by the Assembly’s impeachment inquiry and the Attorney General’s investigation of the governor’s actions.

With a full plate of unfinished non-budget items and an ongoing investigation into the governor, some critically important issues may not get the scrutiny that they deserve before the Legislature wraps up this session, currently scheduled for the second week of June.  One such issue is how best to strengthen voting laws in New York.

New York State recently approved a significant number of measures to reform its elections system. These changes have had a positive impact, most notably by significantly closing the gap between the number of eligible voters and those who are registered. 

However, New York’s voter participation still lags.  While improving, voting rates are still lower than the national average.  In the 2020 general election, a low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 63.4 percent – voted, compared to the national average of 66.7 percent. 

Help could be on the way.  New York lawmakers have two constitutional amendments under consideration.  For the New York State Constitution to be amended, two successive legislatures must approve the measure and then the proposed amendment is put to the voters for final approval.

Both of the constitutional voting reforms have been approved once by both houses, and the state Senate has approved them a second time.  That means it’s up to the Assembly to approve these measures a second time before they can be put before state voters.

The amendments – if approved by the Assembly and then approved by voters this November – would change New York’s voting laws by (1) eliminating the requirement that voters need an excuse to obtain a mail-in absentee ballot; and (2) by allowing new voters to register and vote on election day.  These two measures would significantly improve New York’s voting laws.  The amendment to allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day has been a game changer in boosting voter participation in the states that allow the practice.

Of course, those measures can only be put to the voters for their approval if the Assembly acts

These measures would show the nation that some states are making it easier for eligible Americans to vote – to exercise their constitutional right.  New York can show the nation that voting in America can be conducted openly, easily, and legally. 

Acting to strengthen voting laws would stand in stark contrast to what is happening across the nation.  Throughout the United States, voting rights are under attack.  The recently enacted voter suppression law in Georgia is an obvious attempt to suppress the rights of Black and other minority voters.  And Georgia is not alone.  State legislatures across the country, using the false narrative of widespread fraud and a stolen election, are considering measures to restrict voter access and deny the will of voters.

Action by New York would not only boost state voting laws, but it would also help strengthen the hands of those advocating for similar measures at the national level.  

There is hope that Congress might act to create stronger minimum national voter protections.  Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to create federal guidelines for voter processes to safeguard voting rights and foster voter participation.  Examples include modernizing elections systems, allowing same-day registrations, mandating early voting, implementing stricter guidelines for removing individuals from voter rolls, and much more.  If national guidelines are passed, they would override many of the anti-democratic voter policies currently in place or being considered in legislatures across the country – including the newly enacted voter suppression law in Georgia.  The House has approved its version of the legislation (H.R.1) and sent the bill to the Senate (S.1).

Opponents to S.1 and supporters of a rollback in voting rights, point to weaknesses in the voting laws in so-called “progressive” states as evidence of hypocrisy.  Thus, advocacy by S.1’s supporters – like New York Senator Schumer – can be undermined by the weak nature of their state’s voting laws.  Thus, strengthening New York’s laws also can bolster the national effort toward reform. 

The NYS Legislature Flexes Its Muscle in Budget Negotiations

Posted by NYPIRG on April 12, 2021 at 9:05 am

Last week, state lawmakers and Governor Cuomo finally wrapped up a budget.  As it has in the past, the agreement was days past the deadline for the beginning of the new fiscal year – April 1st – but it was approved in time to spare state workers and the public of an interruption in services or paychecks.  In terms of the timing of the agreement, this year was not exceptional.

What was different this time around was the massive bailout sent from the federal government to Albany.  The Congressional stimulus deal wiped out Albany’s budget deficit and allowed the governor and legislative leaders to focus on the unmet needs of New York as well as establish measures to keep the state on firm financial footing while we all continue to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic.

The final budget agreement appropriated $212 billion – a massive increase from last year – and included important new measures.  For example, students at the State University of New York (and the City University of New York) will see not see an increase in tuition for the next three years, a significant change in policy. 

In addition, both public and independent college students will see the biggest increase in financial aid in memory.  Funding for water infrastructure was maintained, the governor’s plan to weaken New York’s plastic bag ban was rejected, new nursing home protections were put in place, and an environmental bond act proposal was approved to allow the state to borrow $3 billion to offset the costs of dealing with the growing threat posed by global warming.  Voters will get final say on that plan when they go to the polls in November 2022.

The state financed these proposals – and more – by raising tax rates on those making over $1 million.  Middle-income New Yorkers will see a reduction in tax rates and new help in offsetting property taxes.

Not surprisingly, it was the fight over tax hikes that was most controversial, with supporters arguing that tax hikes on the wealthy will help address New York’s needs, while opponents warning that the wealthy may pack up and leave the state.

The budget agreement was about dollars and cents; funding programs and deciding who will pick up the tab.  But the agreement also highlighted the shifting political dynamics of Albany.  It is now clear that a resurgent legislative branch has the oomph to impact budget decisions in a manner undreamed of in years.

The reasons for this tectonic shift are clear.

The governor is now deep into his third term and like other modern chief executives – from Governor Mario Cuomo and George Pataki as well as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – his political power is ebbing after a decade in office.  It has not helped Governor Cuomo that a new Democratic President has taken office and is now driving national policies, and President Trump is no longer available as foil for the governor. 

Moreover, the mounting controversies surrounding the governor – allegations of inappropriate behavior, failures of his Administration to accurately report nursing home deaths, and the harsh media coverage of his multimillion-dollar book deal – further undercut the governor’s public support and policy momentum.

Lastly, for the first time in modern New York political history, both houses of the Legislature now have super majorities and were willing to flex their political muscle.  After being relegated to a junior partner in the development of New York’s budget and policymaking, lawmakers have been chomping at the bit to reclaim their role as co-equal branch of government and a powerful check on the executive.

There is no doubt that the budget that was approved last week contained measures that could not have been approved in years past – things like hiking taxes on the wealthy.  Of course, the governor was not a bit player in the budget agreement; his constitutional powers make him the main driver of the budget. Yet a resurgent Legislature clearly left a deep mark on the final product. 

It’s hard to see how the current dynamic changes in the next year.  The allegations against the governor may end up going nowhere, but the third term blues will still hang over his Administration.  And those supermajorities are not going away before the November 2022 election, if ever. 

Until then, New Yorkers will see something that hasn’t existed for many years – two co-equal branches of government making policy.  They will sometimes clash, and other times cooperate.  In 18 months, the voters will render their judgment on how well Albany as currently configured is meeting the needs of New Yorkers.

NY’s Ethics Oversight Moves Into the Spotlight

Posted by NYPIRG on April 5, 2021 at 9:03 am

As Albany moved closer to a budget deal, a new controversy emerged.  According to reporting in the New York Times and the Buffalo News, Governor Cuomo’s pandemic leadership book deal was likely worth $4 million.  This reporting also raised a new wrinkle – that the governor’s staff was involved in pulling together the draft of that book and pitching it to publishers and the public.

The reports that the governor’s staff and state resources were used to write the book should not only force scrutiny of the allegations, but should shine a spotlight on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) — the state’s ethics watchdog — as well.

The governor’s office responded by stating that the governor’s staff that were involved in the book did so on “their own time” and that the use of any state resources in the drafting of the book was merely “incidental.” 

According to media reports, JCOPE staff gave the go ahead for the governor to sign a book deal last summer.  According to letters between the governor’s office and the JCOPE staff, the precedent that had been set in the governor’s previous book deal – and other ethics opinions – gave the staff the authority to agree to the governor’s request and not seek approval of the full board of JCOPE.

A review of the correspondence shows the governor’s office never told the JCOPE staff the amount of the book agreement or how the deal was structured, which should have been information that JCOPE requested.  In its authorization letter to the governor, JCOPE specifically stated as conditions for approval that the governor could not work on the book during his “work hours,” that no staff time and no state resources could be used in the work to draft the book. 

The coverage reports that the governor either ignored those rules or believed there was a way to circumvent the agreement conditions on technicalities.  In any event, JCOPE must review the facts revealed in the media’s reporting and the governor’s defense.

This latest controversy raises serious questions about JCOPE itself.  For example, as mentioned earlier, media reports have stated that staff worked on the book during their personal time.  Did JCOPE approve of such activity?  The JCOPE staff apparently did not request information on the value of the book deal.  A book deal worth millions is incredible and knowing that seems important.  What is the rationale for not requesting such important information?

It also has been reported that the governor agreed to give a speech to a NYC law firm and that the firm agreed to buy the governor’s books as part of the arrangement.  Did JCOPE approve this arrangement? 

These reports do not mean that all JCOPE’s commissioners or all its staff have behaved inappropriately.  But this story shines an unflattering spotlight on the agency and its decade-long track record.

Almost since its creation in 2011, JCOPE has been a punching bag and punchline among state government observers.  Instead of being designed as an independent watchdog, it was set up as a political creature, structured to look out for the interests of political leaders who by law appoint the commissioners, not necessarily the public’s best interests.

So, what should happen next?  Here are some ideas:

  1. The Senate and Assembly should immediately convene a joint inquiry into JCOPE.  The Commissioners and staff – and former Commissioners – should be required to submit sworn testimony about the actions of the agency. 
  2. Require that all Commissioners and staff be sworn to secrecy when considering a vote on whether to commence an investigation and that they pledge a fiduciary responsibility to the public, not their appointing authorities.  Leaks have led to at least one Commissioner resigning.
  3. Reforms should be acted upon.  There are measures under consideration in the Legislature right now that would eliminate some of the structural weaknesses and lack of public accountability in New York’s ethics laws.  Once the budget is done, those measures must be taken up.  (A recent report by the New York City Bar Association calling for JCOPE to be abolished and making reform recommendations can be found here.)
  4. Lawmakers should act on a reform to replace JCOPE with a constitutionally established state ethics watchdog.  Such legislation has been advanced by state Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Robert Carroll (S.855/A.1929). 

The lack of a clearly independent ethics watchdog undermines the public’s confidence in its own government.  For those who are subject to unethical conduct or those falsely accused, the lack of independent ethics oversight denies them vindication.

New Yorkers deserve an independent ethics watchdog, one with the resources and legal support to take on even a governor without fear or favor.